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Most of the people I write about here are dead. Eric Fishl is an exception. Today is his birthday. He’s 64.

Scenes from Late Paradise: The Parade (Eric Fischl, 2006)

His early work involved youth and coming to grips with sexuality. His paintings Birthday Boy (1983) and Bad Boy (1981) are thought by some to be at least a little pornographic, placing young boys in sexually suggestive positions with older women. (Don’t click those links if you’re easily offended)  I find them a pretty clear reflection of the hormone-charged fantasies of teenage males discovering what their weenies are actually for, but this is one of those topics that we don’t talk about in polite company, one of those things that make people really uncomfortable.

It’s not Fischl’s early work that intrigues me at the moment, it’s the later paintings of, well, old people like me in situations where art would ordinarily be celebrating the beauty of youth. Scenes from Late Paradise: The Parade would be a commercial for Dockers or beer if it featured 20-somethings having good clean fun. It doesn’t. Those are the lumpy, wrinkled carcasses we inherit by virtue of our advancing age. This is the way we look long before we are able to admit that we actually might look that way.

Getting old scares the shit out of us and here’s this Fischl guy confronting us with our own mortality, our loss of mystery, our decline. The work is more powerful for it. I’ve always thought that it wasn’t very hard making really attractive people interesting because they’re interesting simply by virtue of their physical beauty. It IS hard, on the other hand, to make the rest of us, the normal people, visually compelling.

Bathroom, Scene #4 (Eric Fischl, 2005)

We spend a lot of time trying to fight off the effects of time, and a lot of money, too. It’s like an honorarium we pay to our own vanity. It’s pointless. As I look back over the years I’ve lived, I’ve decided that the magic and mystery of youth gets replaced with something even more satisfying, but only if we stop mourning the lost magic and mystery of youth. It’s not as easy as I’ve made it sound.

Feel free to hate Eric Fischl for exposing uncomfortable weaknesses. Most of the critics, while complimenting his technical skills as a painter, either pan him or offer up the weakest of praise to soften the blow from the back of their hand. Some consider him vulgar. One Russian blogger said that Fischl’s  work “…cause(s) an almost physical sense of a bad dream,” but I can’t tell if that’s an original quote or if it’s borrowed from another source. Either way, it’s a great line.

I think I have a quote saved someplace that says that art has to disturb you to be great. I can’t find it right now and besides, it’s nonsense anyway. I will say, however, that some art is great because it disturbs you in a way that you need to be disturbed from time to time. Fischl’s work, for me, falls neatly into that column.

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